Monday, October 1, 2018

Waking up to the debate about the efficiency and environmental impact of electric vehicles

I guess I really do eat this stuff for breakfast.

When I awakened this morning, the first things I saw in both my Facebook feed and my email inbox were highly relevant to the ongoing debate on the merits of electric vehicles. The first was a Facebook post featuring photos of a Tesla at a charging station, and the second was an e-mailed press release announcing a partnership between technology company Semcon and hydrogen fuel-cell producer Powercell.

At the top of my Facebook feed was a rather predictable social media troll-fest. The post was a seemingly simple little album of photos of a Tesla being charged up outside what was apparently a small Tesla charging facility—a tiny building about the size of an old-school C-store.

The comment entered to accompany the photos by the gentleman who originally posted them was “What I love about Tesla is that they don’t use any fossil fuels.” But unfortunately, the order in which Facebook posted the three photos resulted in the ironic intent being easily lost. To see that ironic intent, it was necessary to click through to the punchline, revealed in the third photo, that the charging station that the pictured Tesla was hooked up to was getting its electricity from a mobile diesel generator.

As a result, with the ironic intent being so easily missed, the thread kicked off a quite predictable social media s**tstorm with environmentalists and fossil fuel proponents heatedly debating the net carbon footprint of electric vehicles.

There wasn’t any obvious explanation to the circumstances of this photo—and who knows whether it was doctored. But it’s important to understand that the pictured situation is not typical of the general reality of Tesla’s official charging facilities.

While most Tesla charing stations, according to a June 2017 article in Electrek, are still connected to “the grid” and therefore dependent on whatever fuel source is used by the local electric utility, most of them are also connected to solar batteries. And, for what it’s worth, Tesla states that their long-term plan is to disconnect almost all of them from the grid.

Now, the debate about the total efficiency and environmental impact of EVs in relation to fossil-fueled vehicles is a legitimate and complex one. But one news story I heard on NPR several years ago, though sourced anecdotally, made a compelling case that helped put my thinking on electric vehicles in a much more favorable place.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the story to be able to cite it, and I’m not sure which NPR program aired it. Perhaps it was This American Life or Radiolab, but I haven’t been able to find the episode (if anyone happens to more clearly recall the bibliographic details of this story, a link or citation in the comments here would be greatly appreciated).

But it centered on an interview with a woman who, fed up with paying around $600 per month in gasoline to fuel an extremely long daily commute, broke down and bought a Tesla.

She said that keeping the Tesla charged increased her electric bill by only $40 per month, with the net savings over what she had been paying monthly for gasoline being enough to cover her payments on the Tesla.

Granted, that one anecdotally-based news story does not a scientific study make on the ultimate question of electric vehicle efficiency. But at a minimum it does make a compelling suggestion that there could be a huge scale economy difference between fueling batteries with electricity produced by power stations with massive generators, vs. each of us driving around with our own little gasoline-fueled internal combustion “power plant” under the hood.

The Tesla owner’s experience suggests one of two things: (1) there is a true efficiency gain with EVs, or (2) there is a lot of artificial inflation built into the cost of the gasoline that fuels the individual automobile engine, above and beyond whatever “absolute” cost one could apply to the energy being consumed. Or, perhaps the reality is some mix of the two.

Either way, however, changes to the way electricity is produced could clearly change the variables in the efficiency and environmental-impact equation when it comes to electric vehicles—which brings me to the Semcon press release.

Semcon’s announcement was regarding an expanded partnership with fuel-cell manufacturer Powercell, to deploy automation and robots to help the latter company scale up their operations for manufacturing fuel cells powered by hydrogen to produce electricity and heat “with no emissions other than water.”

The collaboration, according to the announcement, is part of an effort to respond to market demands resulting from “extensive electrification, primarily in the automotive sector,” which has created “a massive increase in interest in fuel cell technology.”

“As part of this partnership, Semcon is supplying test concepts, production equipment, installation and commissioning for semi-automatic trial production of fuel cells. This is an incredibly exciting project with fantastic potential,” says Thomas Lydhig, technical project manager at Semcon, in the press release.

To the extent to which technologies like hydrogen-powered fuel cells may have applications to supplying electricity to charge electric-vehicle batteries, this is a direct example of how technological advances could render moot much of the debate over questions about the ultimate efficiency and environmental impact of electric vehicles.

Issues like the net environmental impact of producing electric-vehicle batteries—let alone disposing of them once their useful life is complete—are another matter. But technology continues to march ahead.

When you combine technological advances like these with other recent developments in the electric vehicle space, like Volkswagen’s battery-powered triumph at Pikes Peak earlier this year, it is clear that the merits of electric cars are no longer something that can be blindly brushed off with old arguments about coal-fueled electric plants.

And, of course, a healthy debate on the pros and cons of electric cars always tastes pretty good with a big bowl of Cheerios and a strong cup of coffee.

1 comment:

  1. You can usually plug most compatible EVs into any standard electrical outlet. The charging point would need to be set up by a licensed contractor to meet regular standards. Commercial charging stations